Although not my first go volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival, nothing can prepare you for the difficult road ahead. It’s an impossible task to watch every film you fancy, (especially when you work close to ninety hours during the fest). But despite the grueling schedule, I sat down for almost two dozen of the films shown at this year's Sundance. Out of the films I watched, here are five recommendations worth seeking out.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Winner, U. S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic; Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic)
Ever so often there comes a film that, within the first few moments, let's you know you are in the presence of something great. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl could have easily been filled with the unsatisfying Sundance quirky clichés that are ultimately a waste of time, but it isn't. Greg (Thomas Mann) is an insecure high school senior who doesn’t belong to any one clique, but is essentially a pseudo member of each. When he’s not pretending to be invisible, he devotes his time making film homages with cheeky titles like Senior Citizen Kane and A Sockwork Orange with his friend Earl. When one of Greg’s classmates is diagnosed with leukemia, his pushy mother recommends he visit her. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is not keen on the idea and though she initially rebuffs Greg’s attempts, a strong bond forms between the two nonetheless. Reminiscent of (500) Days of Summer's visual storytelling, the adolescent spirit of The Spectacular Now and the tearjerkiness of The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is cinematic perfection that will make you feel all the feels.
In the same realm as Frances Ha, director Noah Baumbach's Mistress America follows Tracy (Lola Kirke), a clueless college freshman at Columbia University who just wants to fit in. After finding out her only friend and crush (Matthew Shear) has a girlfriend, she decides to call her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film). Brooke is loving, erratic and — at her core — a dreamer who adds much needed color to Tracy’s bland life. As the duo traipse around New York City, Tracy is quickly rejuvenated and awestruck by Brooke. However, things take an interesting turn when Tracy uses Brooke’s life as material for a story. Mistress America is flat out hilarious and incredibly relatable. Kirke and Gerwig have a brilliant and organic chemistry.
Slow West (World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic)
Set against the vicious backdrop of the American Frontier, Slow West follows Jay Cavendish, (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a young man searching for his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), after she flees with her father from Scotland to the U.S. Along the way, Jay meets the secretive and shadowy Silas (Michael Fassbender), whose motives remain unclear as he accompanies Jay on his journey. Make no mistake, Slow West is not the John Wayne Western flick you may be accustomed to, but it does feature a similar moody tone and its numerous surges of silly violence will easily satisfy any Tarantino fan. Mixed with the right amount of bleakness and romanticism, as well as an accomplished cast, director John Maclean flawlessly executes his tale of the Wild West.
James White (Audience Award: NEXT)
James White is a remarkable debut from writer/director Joshua Mond, whose previous work includes producing the indie hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. Fresh off of losing his father, James (Christopher Abbott), must now deal with the harsh reality of saying goodbye to his cancer-ridden mother (Cynthia Nixon). As a filmmaker, Mond draws upon his own experiences losing his mother to the disease. The film doesn’t offer anything revolutionary in terms of plot or storytelling, but Abbott’s performance is dark, complex and multifaceted. It's easy to become enamored with James’ devastating story and, as an audience, prepare to go through the various stages of grief right along with him. Despite the unavoidably desolate ending, hope remains.
People, Places, Things
While throwing a fifth birthday party for their twin daughters, Will (Jemaine Clement) walks in on his girlfriend, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), in a compromising situation. She announces she wants out of their relationship and soon Will moves out of house and into a less than ideal apartment in Queens. Embarking on his new life, Will begins teaching classes at the School of Visual Arts where one of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams), sets him up with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall). The twosome have a sweet, poignant chemistry, however, both are hesitant to begin dating for a myriad of reasons. Will and Diane’s connection is undeniable; they both compliment each other in the best way, but the pair are never fully on the same page. People, Places, Things is a ridiculously charming story jam-packed with honesty and sheds light on Clement as a dramatic actor. Also, props to director Jim Strouse who cast Williams and Hall. It is incredibly refreshing to have women of color play the lead, and not have race be a factor in the narrative.
Slow West was acquired by A24 ahead of its Sundance premiere. Fox Searchlight nabbed double award winner Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, as well as Baumbach’s Mistress America. James White and People, Places, Things have yet to be acquired.